Observers at Polling Places Must Include Those Without a Stake

IN Romania today, the question of who may be present inside polling sites on election day has become a major issue. The government proposes authorizing the presence of political parties, the media, and international observers. Opposition political parties and civic groups, now supported by members of the United States Congress and others in the international community, urge that the law also explicitly provide for the presence of nonpartisan, domestic monitors.

Parliament, which is debating the election law in anticipation of July elections, apparently will permit domestic monitors to be present at polling sites - but subject to such onerous restrictions that the whole purpose of the effort will be compromised.

The critical role that domestic election monitors, together with international observers, play in promoting public confidence in an electoral process is recognized in the 1990 Copenhagen Declaration. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) pledged to facilitate the presence of international observers and domestic monitors for elections in member countries.

The Romanian government contends that permitting domestic monitors would overcrowd polling sites. It further argues that the compliance with the Copenhagen Declaration requires only that the law authorize the presence of political-party agents, media representatives, and international observers. This view ignores the important and unique role that nonpartisan monitors have assumed, particularly in countries in transition.

The Philippine National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) deserves considerable credit for this development. NAMFREL performed a critical function in the 1986 presidential election, which ultimately led to the demise of Ferdinand Marcos.

NAMFREL demonstrates the range of activities undertaken by domestic monitors. It recruited and trained pollwatchers who were present at polling stations throughout the Philippines on election day, defying in many cases threats and violence directed against them. The organization also mounted a "quick count," which provided an independent tabulation of the election results. The NAMFREL results showing a victory by opposition candidate Corazon Aquino were viewed by the Filipinos and the international commu nity as more credible than the official results.

This experience influenced Chileans as they prepared for the 1988 plebiscite that ended the rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Again, domestic groups organized a nonpartisan effort to register voters and to conduct a quick - and credible - count.

BY the time multiparty elections in East and Central Europe were scheduled in 1990, domestic monitors were considered an important component in ensuring public confidence in the electoral process. The Bulgarian Association for Fair Elections (BAFE), for example, initiated an effective civic education program.

Domestic-monitoring initiatives have spread to Africa. GERDDES, an African civic organization based in Benin, has organized election observer missions and training programs for monitors in more than 15 West African countries. In Zambia, two domestic monitoring groups were credited with helping create the conditions necessary for free and fair elections there.

A nonpartisan monitoring effort differs from the monitoring conducted by political-party agents. The latter are more concerned with protecting the interests of their party than ensuring that the process is fair or that voters feel secure.

The media, particularly in transition situations, also are not an adequate substitute for a nonpartisan monitoring effort. Many media outlets are partisan, and journalists are seldom willing to remain present at polling sites for more than a few minutes at a time. The same is true for international observer teams, which also are often limited in scope and whose members may not speak the local language.

Nonpartisan monitors played a portentous supporting role in Romania's February local elections. The Pro-Democracy Association produced and distributed explanations of the voting process, organized candidate forums in cities throughout the country, trained and deployed more than 6,000 pollwatchers, and, at a roundtable discussion after the elections, brought together political party leaders and government officials to discuss needed electoral-law reforms. Political parties and international observers, as well as Romanian election officials, expressed their appreciation for the presence of well-trained individuals who knew the proper election procedures.

In view of these circumstances, inclusion of a provision in the election law authorizing nonpartisan organizations to monitor Romania's upcoming national elections should not be a matter of much controversy. Instead, debate should focus on more substantive questions such as the allocation of seats in the legislature, media access, campaign financing for political parties, and the creation of an electoral environment in which voters may cast their ballots freely.

It would be a shame if, after the progress in February, the upcoming elections are unfair due to serious inequities in the law.

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